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What Monty Python can teach us about Magna Carta on its 800th birthday

- June 15, 2015

As the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta approaches, and we turn to asking what it all means, I can’t help but think of Monty Python’s take on the question. In one sketch, John Cleese opened the debate with this: “The Magna Carta – was it a document signed at Runnymede in 1215 by King John pledging independence to the English barons, or was it a piece of chewing gum on a bedspread in Dorset?”
Silly as it sounds, Cleese’s question did a good job of summing up many discussions on the topic, and that is certainly what he had in mind. For some, Magna Carta was a game changer. It explains why England alone in Europe became a land of liberty and parliamentary control. For others the whole affair — King John confronted by barons and forced to sign a document clarifying their rights — was unimportant and its legacy has been exaggerated.
How can we navigate between the two views of events at Runnymede? One way is to take a closer look at what actually happened and so dispel myths. Deborah Boucoyannis has done so here. A second way is to think about Magna Carta in a broader European context. Events much like the signing happened elsewhere in Europe, complete with the declaration of oaths and the rise of parliaments. In fact, some of these other oaths met with more success than did Magna Carta itself.
The real legacy of Magna Carta is as one example of a broad European movement to establish rights and representation. It wasn’t just chewing gum on a bedspread, but neither was it a solo game changer.
Wim Blockmans offers two poignant examples of agreements like Magna Carta that were entered into elsewhere. In 1127, Count William of Normandy contended with a rebellion that resulted in a document calling for constitutional government under control of representatives from the clergy, aristocracy and citizens. In 1188, King Alfonso IX of Léon summoned nobles, the clergy and elected townsmen to an assembly where he swore not “to wage war, make peace or have a solemn court without the counsel of the bishop, nobles and good men with whose counsel I have to reign.” These events sound an awful lot like those that produced Magna Carta, and they took place before it.
In fact, representative assemblies emerged all across Western Europe at this time. In some cases, a king or count dealt with nobles, clergy and sometimes burghers elected from towns. In other cases, the burghers took action on their own, establishing independent cities with active governing councils, or leagues of cities whose representatives met in a common assembly, as happened in Flanders.
In my book “States of Credit,” I have charted the development of representative assemblies in Europe and their role in giving governments access to credit. Others who have documented the rise of European parliaments include Jan Luiten van Zanden and his co-authors, and Scott Abramson and Carles Boix.
Why did representative assemblies erupt in Europe during the 13th century?
So why did all this happen in Europe and why during the 13th century? Here’s one possible answer. At that time, Europe was divided into many states seeking to finance wars. The need to raise money created both the demand for and the supply of assemblies.
Demand for assemblies existed because they were a great technology for raising money. Rulers found that they could actually raise more revenue if they met with elites to bargain over taxation, and if they conceded some control over how the money would be spent. Working with an assembly also helped establish credit if members of the assembly were themselves the ones purchasing public debt.
The supply of assemblies existed because many European states were small compared with states found elsewhere, such as China. Before the railroad and the telegraph, distance mattered for travel and communication. I have shown how small size allowed assemblies to meet frequently, simply because travel was feasible.
This is why the European assemblies that met most frequently were in small polities such as Holland or Flanders. In a very large state such as France this simply wasn’t possible, and so the Estates General had less influence. The English Parliament’s meeting frequency fell midway between these two extremes, as England was larger than Holland or Flanders but smaller than France.
Why in Europe, not in (say) China?
Compact geography and the need for war finance help explain the early development of representation in Europe. This brings us to another conclusion. In the grand scheme of things, agreements such as Magna Carta didn’t happen because Europeans were somehow more enlightened or desired freedom more than people elsewhere. They happened because of Europe’s relative fragmentation, especially when compared with governance in vaster areas such as China. Europe’s pitch toward representative government may best be described as a historical accident.
So on this 800th anniversary of Magna Carta we should remember that good things can happen for accidental reasons.
David Stasavage is professor of politics at New York University. Follow him at @stasavage.